Firstborn (1984)

15 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Firstborn” is an accurate, effective portrait of a broken suburban family that just gets better every time I watch it…or rather, the first hour and 15 minutes to be exact. The remaining twenty minutes are on autopilot and every repeated viewing keeps me from rating the film four stars. I really think it’s think it’s that good, so I’m giving it a three as a fair deal. I just wish it didn’t end with a typical, standard, (and worst of all) unnecessary action-film climax.

“Firstborn” begins pleasantly, as we’re introduced to a family that consists of a divorced mother, Wendy Livingston (Teri Garr), and her two sons—teenage Jake (Christopher Collet) and eleven-year-old Brian (Corey Haim). Theirs is a quiet, happy life; at least for the boys—Jake is on the lacrosse team and has a cute girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), and he and Brian each have a lot of friends to hang around with. But there seems to be something missing in their lives and it becomes more evident with the news that Wendy’s ex-husband, whom she still loves, is remarrying.

The next day, Jake and Brian are having their usual morning breakfast—bickering while eating. Suddenly, they hear a cough and they know someone spent the night with their mother. At first, they assume it’s their mother’s ex-boyfriend whom she recently broke it off with. But instead it’s Sam (Peter Weller), a pickup from last night. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Sam meets Jake and Brian and they try to engage in awkward conversation. (“Sleep okay?” Jake asks to break the silence at one point.) This scene has ring of truth to it—what do you say when you meet a complete stranger in their house, after a one-night stand, that awkwardly?

But as it turns out, it wasn’t a one-night stand. Sam continues to date Wendy, and so Jake, being the oldest and most responsible boy, subtly tests him to see if he’s OK. Sam seems like a with-it guy, and has big plans for himself and even wants to share them with Wendy. And he also buys Jake a dirt bike as a present, which earns good points for him. But soon enough, Sam’s talk of businesses (with a home-security service and a new restaurant) gets Jake to believe that he’s all talk, and that “he’s an a**hole trying to make us think he’s OK.”

A few days later, Sam moves in. Wendy assures her sons that it feels right—for her, maybe, but to Jake, it’s all going so fast. Wendy feels like she’s in love with this man who seems as uncomfortable with his point in life as she is with hers. She doesn’t see that Sam is a put-on, though her sons are quick to catch on. Things get tougher around the house as Jake continues to challenge Sam closely about his future plans. Sam is lazy—he raids the fridge, sits around the house, and watches TV all day. At one point, Sam shoves Jake, telling him menacingly, “Get off my back.” Suddenly, this once-happy suburban family life is turned upside-down and it gets even worse when Jake learns that Sam is a small-time cocaine dealer and has even gotten Wendy hooked on the stuff.

The first hour and 15 minutes of “Firstborn” is very effective. It’s a credible, carefully-executed family drama with great performances, a steady pace, realistic dialogue, and some powerful scenes of truth. You feel the conflict that the characters are going through, and even if you want to shake Wendy into believing that she is making the wrong choices, you forgive her because you know people like her—looking for love in all the wrong places and not exactly knowing what to do after she’s found it. Jake is of course the character to sympathize with, since he is the one has to look out for his mother as well as the wellbeing of his kid brother, only because his mother is not the best one to take care of things around the house anymore. He even has to go in and see Brian’s principal one day just because the mother is coked up. The dad can’t help anymore, and on top of that, Jake can’t even call the police because most of the money spent on the drugs is Wendy’s. This is a lot for a teenager to go through, and Jake had to grow up fast and ultimately do something about this.

The acting is solid across-the-board. Christopher Collet is very good as Jake, delivering a natural and effective performance as a conflicted teenager. Corey Haim is convincing as Jake’s little brother Brian, who likes to hit other kids to take out his anger. Teri Garr has appealing scenes with the boys in the earlier scenes, and when she takes her own plunge into nothing, she’s pretty convincing (even if like I said, you want her to finally wake up and catch on). Peter Weller is brilliant as Sam—smooth when he needs to be, slimy when pushed over the edge. It’s a great performance.

Great scenes include—the aforementioned introduction of Sam; the scene in which Wendy tells the boys that he’s moving in; the moment when Jake tries to convince his mother that Sam is a phony, followed by a confrontation in which Sam tries to keep his cool to Jake (the end of that scene is just right); and the strong moment when Brian ultimately decides to sleep at a friend’s house because of everything going on at home—he doesn’t feel that his mom loves him anymore. There’s a subplot involving Jake’s snobby English teacher that at first seems unnecessary, but even that pays off, as it mirrors Jake’s home life. Jake finally snaps, “If you’re that great, why are you trying so hard to impress us?!”

And this is where “Firstborn” unfortunately loses its footing. With such a strong story with these kids facing a harsh dilemma such as this, we now have Jake ultimately deciding to stand up and get rid of Sam once and for all. He does this by hiding the cocaine, in an attempt to blackmail Sam into leaving. Where does this lead? Not to a battle of wits, which would have been acceptable. But it leads instead to a chase scene, with Sam in his car and Jake on his dirt bike, all over town. Would you believe that Jake gets attacked by a dog and nearly gets hit by a train?

But that’s not all. The film ends with a brutal fight scene in which everyone gets pummeled until we have the predictable victor (even little Brian gets beaten, after defending the family with a baseball bat). Where in the world did this come from? This is not the film we started out with. The film we started out with is called “Firstborn,” and this final twenty-minute sequence is essentially a throwaway climax. What happened? Did the writers give up on the story? Did they feel they couldn’t come up with something as strong as what was introduced to us before?

I guess I should only be glad that (SPOILER ALERT) it didn’t end the way most climaxes such as this turned out, with a death. (END OF SPOILER ALERT)

The first hour and 15 minutes keeps me coming back to watch “Firstborn,” but even when I love the same things again and again, it only makes it all the more disappointing every time it reaches the final act. But I just can’t bring myself to give it less than a positive review. Like I said, I praise the acting, the story structure, the credibility of the central determined dilemma, and the dialogue, but I just can’t figure out why “Firstborn” had to end so misguidedly. I guess I should say see it, but prepare to be disappointed. Is that fair? Maybe not. But it’s how I feel.

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